I was recently on the Lars Larson Show, interviewed about the situation in Gaza. One of the readers had some criticisms which he sent me. I publish them below with my response. First his letter as he wrote it, then my interlinear response.
July 7, 2007
Professor Richard Landes
Dear Professor Richard Landes;
This is written to comment somewhat critically of your thoughts as expressed on the Lars Larson radio program recently regarding the Palestinian question. The root problem with the Palestinian crisis is America’s creation of the state of Israel out of Palestinian lands in the full flush of U.S. world domination following World War II. The lands did not belong to the United States to give away. And this to this day remains the underlying source of antagonism that animates not only Palestinians but nearly all Arab Muslims. A secondary matter is the power which American Zionist interests hold largely in terms of social propaganda over the American body politic, most obviously in this country’s Middle East foreign policy. In order to maintain the fiction of moral authority of Israel over the Arab world, American Zionists have crafted an entire view of the world that isolates the United States and leads it into its many wars in the region. Since the early 1960s, America has foolishly dedicated its considerable powers to preserving the Jewish state in the Middle East at enormous cost to itself as to the countless millions of Arab Muslims who protest this state of affairs. Frankly speaking, by the direction of your own political dialogue on the Lars Larson radio program, one suspects a similar dedication to the Zionist cause. If so, it would be more objective and sincere that you announce your position unilaterally favoring the Israel side and not speak with words that imply dedication to American national interest.
Here’s my response.
This is written to comment somewhat critically of your thoughts as expressed on the Lars Larson radio program recently regarding the Palestinian question. The root problem with the Palestinian crisis is America’s creation of the state of Israel out of Palestinian lands in the full flush of U.S. world domination following World War II. The lands did not belong to the United States to give away. And this to this day remains the underlying source of antagonism that animates not only Palestinians but nearly all Arab Muslims.
I’m interested in where you get your information. I was unaware that the US created the State of Israel in 1948. Indeed, it was touch and go whether the US would vote for Israel, and the State Department (following the lead of the British Foreign Service) was, if I remember my diplomatic history of that period, very much opposed. (E.g., George C. Marshall, the general of the Marshall Plan, who thought Israel would lose; so did the CIA [hattip: fp].)
There are three major players in the creation of the State of Israel: the UN which voted its creation, the Zionist movement which had worked for decades to create a viable candidate for statehood, ready for UN approval and with all the institutions necessary to hit the ground running, and the Israeli Defense Forces which fought back an invasion of Arab armies openly proclaiming their intention of destroying the infant nation and slaughtering large parts of its population. The US was a minor player, and for decades after (until 1967), not Israel’s main friend and weapons supplier (France was!).
You seem to be working from the script of the Palestinian Victim Narrative, with all its imperfect historical memory retrospectively revised (ex post facto) to explain their own failure, which therefore reverses historical causality. Thus they have no memory of when the US was not on Israel’s side; they think the British were working for the Zionists, and that the US, in some high-handed act of imperialism, created Israel out of nothing and imposed it on the poor innocent inhabitants of this land. I’ve referred to it as the “Post-Colonial Paradigm” (PCP2), which insists on seeing imperialism
a) as a very evil thing (I agree),
b) to be found only among Westerners (joke — its just the Westerners were the most successful imperialists in the modern period, in the 7-12th centuries CE, Islam was the most successful imperial movement on the planet), and
c) the USA as the worst imperialist force on the planet today (most powerful perhaps, but imperialist — by historical standards, not at all).
Your comment — “in the full flush of U.S. world domination following World War II — strikes me as just the kind of trope one expects from this retrospective (PCP) historiography. Today, with the US accused of insufferable arrogance and imperialism by a loud chorus of “alter-mondialistes,” that past gets rewritten to support the indictment. The US actually behaved with extraordinary generosity and respect for the law in the aftermath of WW II, encouraging the existence of independent institutions that rivaled it on the global scene (UN), offering a helping hand to the war-devastated French and the defeated Germans and Japanese alike. Although the US was by far the most powerful military force on the planet, it did not annex, or invade, or subordinate countries that any truly imperialist country would have.
For example, were the US a really imperialist force, President Eisenhower, the general who won World War II, would have responded to the crisis of Arab nationalizations — Suez Canal, petroleum production — by conquering and colonizing every oil-rich Arab territory to assure our free and cheap supply of so necessary a primary product. On the contrary, the US sided with the Arab rulers’ desires, forced Britain, France and Israel to abandon the Suez Canal, and allowed the Saudis to nationalize oil. When one thinks about how often the US has sided with (or intervened on behalf of) Muslims in the world scene when it counted — from Suez and nationalization, to Afghanistan, to Bosnia, to Somalia — I’d say the Muslims who paint the US as the “Great Satan” are profoundly unjustified in their hatreds. If anyone had a right to blow up the WTC, it’s the American Indians, not global Jihadis.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an overlap between American attitudes and behaviors and imperialist ones. I can see where the argument comes from. But it’s based on a failure to understand a) what imperialism really is — libido dominandi, the lust to dominate, the overwhelming desire to control the lives of others, and b) how far from that Americans are in their very national character. No one, not even W, is arguing that now that we’ve conquered Iraq, we should take over. On the contrary, everyone assumes we want out.
What makes that anti-imperial position (when do we get out?) — as self-evident as the notion that “all men are created equal” — so exceptional is that there’s never been a nation with such exceptional military superiority to everyone else, who didn’t use it to conquer near and far. (And that certainly goes for Muslims, repeatedly, throughout their history.) So no, I don’t think America is an imperialist power, and I think that Europeans who accuse us of that, are driven by their envy and resentment that we’ve replaced them as the most powerful and influential culture on the globe (largely because we are less aristocratic and hierarchical). And Americans who agree with them, imnsho, sell their own people short.
I may be assuming that you are arguing something you’re not, but my feeling is that your outline of what happened is
a) inaccurate to the point of falsifying history
b) produced by people who are hostile to the US, and think of us as imperialist oppressors who need to be defeated (or at least taught a lesson)
c) crafted to give justification Arab complaints against the US for siding with Israel, and therefore justify that hostility.
This final point (c) comes out clearly in your remark: And this to this day remains the underlying source of antagonism that animates not only Palestinians but nearly all Arab Muslims.
First off, there was no Palestine back then, little more than a few (Arab nationalist) intellectuals who even spoke about Palestine then. The very notion that this is about stealing Palestinian lands is a distorting lens with which to understand what happened. Not that there weren’t Arabs, in particular Arab Muslims, who had land they lost in the conflict. That happened, no question.
The issue, where the question of policy is concerned, is why did this catastrophe happen. If you package it as an Israeli aggression against innocent Palestinians (as you seem to), one nation stealing another nation’s existence away, then you fail to grasp what happened. Instead, you have a false sense that Arab culture operated more or less the way Western culture did, and that the defining identity of these Arabs who were displaced was nation (rather than tribe, clan, or religion). This produces on the one hand, our receptivity to the other Arabs prolonging the “refugee problem” by making the Arabs who fled an Arab war live in concentration camps awaiting return to their homes (and homeland), and on the other it feeds our fantasies that if we can create a Palestinian nation we can solve the problem.
But if the issue of nation is not the fundamental one, if the cause of Palestinian suffering comes from a different set of problems, then creating a Palestinian nation is guaranteed to produce unanticipated results, many of which — given the experience of Olso — look fairly dangerous.
I personally contest your “nation-state” reading of what happened in 1948, and the implication that aspirations for national independence lie at the core of the Arab beef with Israel, and ask you to read my analysis of what animates the antagonism of the Arabs against Israel: the humiliation created by the very existence of an independent Jewish state in the midst of Dar al Islam.
Arab resentment of the USA comes from similar sources: the same humiliation and sense of inferiority that brushing up against Israel causes, but this time on the global scale. Bin Laden may frame his complaints about the USA in Saudi Arabia in theological language, but it was also unbearably humiliating for him to have his Saudi cousins invite the Americans to fight the Iraqis in Kuwait when he, who had just chased the Soviets from Afghanistan and brought down one of the (two) evil empires, had offered his services.
The important point here is not that your position isn’t “reasonable” — and as supported by evidence as mine. It’s a legitimate one. And under normal circumstances, we could agree to differ, just as Ptolomean and Copernican astronomers could differ without grave consequences in the 16th century. But don’t try to send a space ship beyond the solar system using Ptolomean calculations. And don’t try to resolve the enormous and highly volatile issue of Arab/Muslim sense of grievance with liberal cognitive egocentrism. Because if you do, it will blow up in your face… as I will argue below.
A secondary matter is the power which American Zionist interests hold largely in terms of social propaganda over the American body politic, most obviously in this country’s Middle East foreign policy. In order to maintain the fiction of moral authority of Israel over the Arab world, American Zionists have crafted an entire view of the world that isolates the United States and leads it into its many wars in the region.
Now you have me intrigued. Why do you think that Israel’s moral authority over the Arab world is a fiction. On the one hand we have a progressive state by any standards — free and highly self-critical press, free elections, minority rights, social services, exceptionally developed and “color-blind” medical care, progressive income tax, proliferation of progressive watchdog and other NGOs, exceptionally independent judicial system, no death penalty, freedom of worship — under extremely difficult circumstances. On the other, impoverished, oppressed populations ruled over by thugs and violent religious zealots, captive media, subservient judicial systems, no legal protection for dissent, honor-killings, vendettas, summary executions in the streets… need I go on. And that doesn’t even begin to address the gap in “ethics of warfare.”
By any progressive standards, Israel’s moral superiority to the surrounding Arab nations is so huge it’s literally embarrassing.
Now it’s fine with me if you don’t want to rub the Arabs’ nose in their own moral degradation, but please, don’t present yourself as an American dedicated to the values that made this country great — equality before the law, freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, balance of powers, elections, etc. — and then tell me you think Israel’s moral superiority to the Arab world is “fictive.” What on earth are you thinking?
Now we get to the heart of the issue: “American Zionists have crafted an entire view of the world that isolates the United States and leads it into its many wars in the region.”
Your point, if I understand correctly, is that by using moral arguments to convince the US to support Israel, the American Zionists have made the US the object of Arab/Muslim hatred, and isolated it from the rest of the world (especially Europe), which has a much more “balanced” view of the Arab Israeli conflict. This is, if I’m not mistaken, basic Walt-Mearsheimer. And it’s why I’m taking the trouble to answer your note in such detail. Nothing is more significant than this issue: how does America deal with its current global solitude?
You seem to suggest that if we stopped giving so much support to Israel, things would go better; and in order to feel comfortable arguing that, you seem ready to grant that Israel’s claim to the “moral high ground” is gone (if it were ever there). I’d like to suggest that what you counsel is to toss the Israelis into the maw of an Islamic death cult that will not thereby cease or be satisfied, but that will flare up all the more intensely, fed by its victory and by the West’s failure… in other words, your council (and Jimmy Carter’s and Walt-Mearsheimer’s) is a form not just of appeasement, but surrender.
The Muslims have demanded that you sacrifice Israel — the only democracy in the region — on the altar of their honor (and in defense of their authoritarian regimes), and you are willing to do so, in the hopes that somehow that will make them like us more. This counsel represents not only cowardice but folly, and it will reap the whirlwind. This is the French policy (till now, who knows with Sarkozy?), the Eurabian policy: Israel is a shitty little country, an easy sacrifice.
But no, that is a fatal sacrifice. As a friend who was in Tunisia at the time of the French “veto” of American intentions to invade Iraq (Winter 2003) put it: They see this as a sign of French weakness. They know that Saddam is an enemy of the West, and that France’s natural ally is America. So if France attacks their friend and protects their enemy, it’s because they’re afraid. And that’s without even making recourse to the explanation from resentment. Meantime the French think that they’re being brave because: “Courage is attacking the strongest, and America is the strongest.”
Since the early 1960s, America has foolishly dedicated its considerable powers to preserving the Jewish state in the Middle East at enormous cost to itself as to the countless millions of Arab Muslims who protest this state of affairs. Frankly speaking, by the direction of your own political dialogue on the Lars Larson radio program, one suspects a similar dedication to the Zionist cause. If so, it would be more objective and sincere that you announce your position unilaterally favoring the Israel side and not speak with words that imply dedication to American national interest.
One of the things that distinguishes civil society from prime divider societies, is friendship based on shared values. In the prime divider world of “rule or be ruled,” there are no friends, just convenient allies, to be used when necessary, discarded when not. The US and Israel share a great many profound values and emotions in common, even more than the US shares with Europe, including the exceptional freedom and creativity both encourage among their civilians, their commitment to positive-sum relations, and the exceptional degree of self-criticism they tolerate and embrace. You are counseling that we abandon a real friend (far more loyal in the UN than say, France…) for the sake of currying favor with a powerful and completely unreliable enemy. As the Tunisians remarked about the French, such a policy is a sign of both weakness and cowardice, and shows a very weak commitment to the values that have made the USA great.
It doesn’t take a moral genius to see who, in the Middle East, is also committed to such values. It also doesn’t take a moral genius to know that when the whole playground is mercilessly picking on one kid who’s small and kind of nerdy, but defends himself from bullies, that its shameful to side with the bullies. But it does take someone with true civic courage to stand up to the feeding frenzy and say, “this stinks.”
The sad thing for your position is that even if you don’t care about moral issues, and are willing, like Walt-Mearsheimer, to sell out the Israelis for purely “Realpolitik” motives, it won’t work. Alas, at the dawn of the 21st century, we have to show courage and generosity of spirit to survive as a democracy.
Of course that’s what our founding brothers did in order to found this nation. So why should we not rise to their challenge?